Mind the Gap

Judith Ackerman, a mathematics Ph.D., went on the academic job market when the Army transferred her husband to the Washington, D.C., area in the 1970s. She interviewed at many places, both four- and two-year schools, but ultimately landed at Montgomery College in Rockville, Maryland. "I hadn't planned to have a career at a two-year college," she said, reflecting a common preference among Ph.Ds. to obtain tenure-track positions at four-year institutions with large research budgets. "But here there was an opportunity to innovate, to try new projects."

At first there seemed little chance her career there would last. The man who had first interviewed her insisted the mathematics department was half women; it turned out only about a quarter of the faculty were women. After she and several of her female colleagues realized that they were getting paid less than men in similar positions, Ackerman participated in the fight to unionize the college. Thirty years later, the school now boasts near gender equity in its science, engineering, and math departments, and employee compensation is calculated on a standard scale.

The morning I spoke with her, she commented on a recent seminar on scientific innovation in business she had attended, where she noticed how few women were at the event. The group from Montgomery College, however, was three-quarters women. She also says she's been fortunate to have the flexibility to care for her aging parents while she advanced in her career. "I think community colleges tend to look at how you treat all your faculty. They may have more family-friendly policies," she says.

While Ackerman's particular story may be unique, it reflects a broader trend in higher education. Researchers are finding that women like Ackerman, who teach in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and math at community colleges, may be more satisfied with their jobs than their counterparts at four-year institutions. A recent study presented by four researchers at the American Sociological Association meeting in Las Vegas last month showed that women in the science and technology fields at nine community colleges in Ohio reported higher levels of job satisfaction than women at four-year schools. Institutional cultures -- and professors' satisfaction with their jobs -- is hard to trace to a single factor. But the researchers -- Cynthia D. Anderson, Christine Mattley, Valerie Martin Conley, and David Koonce, all from Ohio University in Athens -- have found that that female instructors in science and technology are better represented than their colleagues at four-year institutions and are promoted and paid at similar rates as men, often because they are unionized and paid on a standardized scale. "Here was a profession where that pay gap didn't exist," says lead researcher Anderson. "Community colleges are providing a less chilly environment for the women who work there." Though the study's scope -- at least geographically -- is narrow, Anderson and her fellow researchers are beginning to find similar evidence in other states.

The list of complaints among female faculty in science and tech at four-year institutions is long: Women often end up getting pushed into administrative and advising roles and often make less at four-year schools. According to data released last year by the Department of Education, the women at four-year institutions earn, on average, 81 percent of what their male colleagues do; the pay gap at two-year institutions was negligible. In fact, at nonprofit two-year schools, women tend to make more than men.

To advocacy groups that work on pay-gap issues like the American Association of University Women (AAUW), it's not surprising to hear that work environments that have greater gender parity result in more satisfied workers. "Because women are so much better represented, I think that contributes to satisfaction," says AAUW senior researcher Andresse St. Rose. "There's greater pay equity. If you feel you're being paid fairly, you feel like you're being treated fairly in general."

A 2007 Department of Labor report showed that while estimated demand for instructors in science and technology fields is growing -- while only 5 percent of the workforce is in science and technology fields, these fields now account for 50 percent of the nation's economic growth -- the preparation of women in science and technology is actually shrinking. In 1996, 41 percent of the female workforce worked in information technology, but in 2004, that number shrank to 32 percent, even though women's participation in the workforce remained steady. Given that the Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that science and technology fields will grow 22 percent between 2004 and 2014, the results of the Ohio University study are good news for women -- and for community colleges, which have become the cornerstone of the Obama administration's plan to prepare the workforce of the future. The White House has committed the country to having the highest college achievement rate in the world by 2020, and it views community colleges as a key component of that goal. The growth is there: From 2000 to 2006, community colleges saw enrollment increases of more than 10 percent, which was estimated to increase even more during the economic recession.

While some science- and math-focused academics may perceive four-year institutions as the ideal destination, the findings of the researchers may lead one to believe that such a narrow perception of science and technology may be limiting. In her research, Anderson seeks to expand the definition of what qualifies as a science and technology job, and hopes to break out of the stereotype of a researcher in a lab at a four-year university. After all, there are just so many Ph.D. spots at top research universities, and if statistics are any indication, the growth in these fields over the coming decades will be in private industry where community-college professors will do most of the training.

"There are lots of types of [science and technology] jobs. In higher education, there are prestigious, high-paying, highly placed jobs, but there are lots of jobs that require a lot of the same types of skills but not as long of training. Most people will end up in that type of job," Anderson says. And diversifying the workforce might just be what will build the pipeline to those few-and-far-between research jobs. Ackerman agrees: "Our students take a look and say, 'Oh there is someone like me in that position.' For women, for minorities, when they see someone like them in [science and technology], they start to think about themselves in such a career."

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